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AdrianP

Strange Fruit

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The BL and the vocalist in my band both want us to add Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit to our set list. I'm not comfortable with it. Don't get me wrong, I'm not overly PC or all that susceptible to ideas of cultural appropriation. But this is a song about a particular time and place where some folks thought it was ok to lynch other folks for no other reason than the colour of their skin. It just feels wrong for a mostly white band to play it. And this is coming from me who, in being part Chinese, is the closest the band comes to an ethnic member. And I do get that it was written by a white civil rights activist. But it seems to me to be so much Billie's song that that fades a little in importance. 

For me, though, the real problem is that I cannot see any scenario where we perform this and don't end up looking bad. At best, it's a bit embarrassing and uncomfortable. At worse, we get a slating for appropriating another culture's music and never work again. There seems no upside to doing this. 

So, before I make a stand on this, I guess I wanted the Basschat hive mind's opinion. Do any other bands play this? Am I getting on my high horse about nothing? You're never going to make me happy playing this but I would appreciate a reality check. 

Cheers.

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I think your concerns are entirely valid 👍

I wouldn't want to perform it, not without changing the lyrics to be relevant to modern society.

 

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I've started feeling uncomfortable about 'cultural appropriation' ever since an American bride got slated for wearing a kimono to her wedding.

My daughter, who speaks some Japanese and has Japanese friends says they were all horrified and couldn't understand what was wrong with other people appreciating and enjoying something they are very proud off - after all it was being used in a respectful ceremony (why don't people boycot Gilbert and Sullivan?)

Personally I think 'cultural appropriation' is only an issue when people 'pick and mix' aspects of a culture in a way that is genuinely disrespectful - thing like bastardised versions of religious ceremonies or using special symbols as decorations.

I don't think most of the stuff criticised is any more direspectful than non-Scots wearing tartan kilts.

But one point you raise is really about 'do you need to have a black experience' to sing this song? To be honest, most black people in the UK have no more validity to sing about lynching than anyone else.

The author of American Dirt was on the radio today, she's of Puerto Rican extraction but has written a book about Mexican refugees. She made some compelling arguments such as 'do we replace one set of gatekeepers/censors with another'. I also feel that raising such issues is more important that who raises the issues; if no Mexican immigrants feel able to write their story in the current climate in the USA, it's good that someone, anyone, is.

So I'd argue that yes, white people or anyone can sing this song.

On this level, is it materially different to a man singing a song about a woman's experiences or vice versa?

 

What I do think is the real issue is the sincerity and authenticity brought to the performance, and that reflects where and when it is performed, to whom and the motivations of those involved. Personally I feel it should only be performed if the occasion suited it and that performers had the audience's 'permission' to do so. This may or may not involve issues of ethnicity or cultural heritage depending on the situation.

 

After all Woody Guthrie sang about lynchings, racism and other such things with no disrespect.

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What is your set list like otherwise? Even disregarding the question of authenticity, it's a heavy song to throw into a mix. I feel there are more occasions it would feel inappropriate than appropriate. 

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I would not have any issues with appropriation, I just cant think what sort of gig it would be appropriate to do it at, and my group wouldn't  be the right group to do it with.

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It's a protest song. It's only doing its job if its being heard.

Edited by wateroftyne
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Thanks all for the comments. A couple of responses. In terms of the rest of the set, we're in the process of moving away from pub rock to a sort of cool, adult oriented pop cover band. In that respect, this does not really fit the vibe we're trying to create unless we gut the song of any kind of meaning it ever had. 

On the authenticity point, I think this hits the nail right on the head. We're not a political band and we haven't been part of any struggle against anything much at all. So how could we carry this off? I don't think we could and it would look fake as soon as anyone saw us. 

So, on those two points alone, my mind is made up. I won't be doing it and suggest they don't either. 

Thanks all. 

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56 minutes ago, wateroftyne said:

It's a protest song. It's only doing its job if its being heard.

This. I am ok with most songs that some would call none pc. Like Brown Sugar. It is telling a story about what went on in the distant past, to our eternal shame, and as such is calling it out not to be forgotten. Where do you stand on playing old blues standards if you are not black, didnt work as a share cropper or have your wife cheat on you?

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I've got a side project with a black vocalist. I feel decidedly ambiguous about lyrics like 'I'll always be your slave', but it's their call and Sam Cooke didn't have any qualms.

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It was written by a white man of Russian Jewish descent if I remember correctly, so  I don’t think you need to worry about appropriation as such. For a song with such a heavy and inflammatory subject matter I’d be concerned just with what the ‘purpose’ of performing the song is, as for me performing that song has to serve a purpose. Secondary to that I’d be basing it on whether you feel justice is being done to the song and if it fits/works in the context of the rest of the set. 
 

Best of luck with it all.

Edited by mr4stringz
Clarity
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I think white folk are sh!t scared of everything these days.

Do it.

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Cultural issues aside, this has to be one of the least cheerful songs ever recorded. When will this ever work live for a pop cover band?

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34 minutes ago, nilebodgers said:

Cultural issues aside, this has to be one of the least cheerful songs ever recorded. When will this ever work live for a pop cover band?

That is my issue,

10 hours ago, AdrianP said:

 sort of cool, adult oriented pop cover band.

Which is the polar opposite of that song. Its not cool and it isn't pop. It is jarring, political and depressing.

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30 minutes ago, Woodinblack said:

That is my issue,

Which is the polar opposite of that song. Its not cool and it isn't pop. It is jarring, political and depressing.

Political?

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10 hours ago, mikel said:

Where do you stand on playing old blues standards if you are not black, didnt work as a share cropper or have your wife cheat on you?

Fair point. I'm also not a sex machine ready to reload; confused about whether I should stay or go; or someone who woke up this morning and got myself a beer. And I strongly suspect I can afford a ticket to Sufragette City.

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10 minutes ago, chris_b said:

Err. . . . very political!

Is protesting about lynching people and hanging them from trees... political?

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I've never heard the song before, just gave it a listen on YouTube. I'm not sure what is considered the definitive version, but the one that came up was Billie Holiday. From a lyrical respect i'd have no problems playing it. The more meaningful the lyrics the better. To suggest that because you're white you can't appreciate or comment on the struggles of another culture is absolute Bull, and pretty much sums up everything that's wrong with society today. On that basis alone, I'd also play it. As a protest song being played as a protest about not being socially allowed to protest. The only reason I wouldn't play it is, it's actually dull as dishwasher and pretty much musical dross. I can't imagine a quicker way to kill a gigs vibe than playing this. 

Edited by Newfoundfreedom
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UB40 did a version of it on their first album. Thats the only version I,m familiar with.

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I think the 'cultural appropriation" argument is a bit of a strawman - most examples of this are usually drummed up by certain papers trying to get everyone angry about "PC gone mad" etc, whereas in reality I can't see anyone objecting on these grounds. I think what's more relevant is whether you feel that your band call pull off a song like this, given its very dark subject matter. Maybe have a  listen to some of the other versions and see what kind of arrangements they've done, and see if one of them feels more comfortable to play?

Edited by tinyd
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29 minutes ago, wateroftyne said:

Is protesting about lynching people and hanging them from trees... political?

If you could take the song and its subject matter purely in isolation, then I imagine you could make a case for it being apolitical.

Unfortunately, there's too much baggage attached to it, and the context around it. The song was clearly written as a protest against the way black Americans were being treated by the majority of white Americans who held the power - not just the angry rabbles who saw fit to blame the nearest black guy for anything that went wrong in the town, but the authorities - local, federal, governmental - who turned a blind eye to the fact this was happening.

When the song was released, Holiday experienced a furious backlash from white record label execs and commentators, who were utterly livid that she should sing about such a thing (their point being what?, you wonder - "Yes, we know this is going on, but don't tell people it's going on"?). One of the other well-known versions was recorded by Nina Simone, who was a very active and outspoken supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. And if it's not clear from her associations, it's clear from her chilling performance that Simone had a point to make when she sang it.

So whilst it may not political in the sense of party politics, and whilst it may not have been as much of a turning point as Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus, it's definitely a bit of an "event" in the story of America's racial tensions.

Ironically, I think the best solution for @AdrianP is going to be the same consensus that we reached on a thread about Conferedate flags a couple of years ago. Which is to say: err on the side of caution. There's an argument for saying that it might be timely to revive the song, but with all due respect to your band, I don't know whether a mostly-white covers group at The Trout and Kettle Plug are the most appropriate people to undertake that job.

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1 minute ago, EliasMooseblaster said:

If you could take the song and its subject matter purely in isolation, then I imagine you could make a case for it being apolitical.

Unfortunately, there's too much baggage attached to it, and the context around it. The song was clearly written as a protest against the way black Americans were being treated by the majority of white Americans who held the power - not just the angry rabbles who saw fit to blame the nearest black guy for anything that went wrong in the town, but the authorities - local, federal, governmental - who turned a blind eye to the fact this was happening.

When the song was released, Holiday experienced a furious backlash from white record label execs and commentators, who were utterly livid that she should sing about such a thing (their point being what?, you wonder - "Yes, we know this is going on, but don't tell people it's going on"?). One of the other well-known versions was recorded by Nina Simone, who was a very active and outspoken supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. And if it's not clear from her associations, it's clear from her chilling performance that Simone had a point to make when she sang it.

So whilst it may not political in the sense of party politics, and whilst it may not have been as much of a turning point as Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus, it's definitely a bit of an "event" in the story of America's racial tensions.

Ironically, I think the best solution for @AdrianP is going to be the same consensus that we reached on a thread about Conferedate flags a couple of years ago. Which is to say: err on the side of caution. There's an argument for saying that it might be timely to revive the song, but with all due respect to your band, I don't know whether a mostly-white covers group at The Trout and Kettle Plug are the most appropriate people to undertake that job.

I get that, but to label it as 'political' in 2020 does it a disservice, I think. 

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